Saturday, April 13, 2013

NJ Superior Court Judge: Blogger Protected By State Shield Law

April 13, 2013 -- A New Jersey Superior Court Judge, Karen M. Cassidy, A.J.S.C., has issued a written opinion (posted by CountyWatchers, here and hereafter cited as "decis") quashing a subpoena that had been issued by the Union County Prosecutor, Theodore Romankow, whose office had been seeking to compel a county-oriented blogger by the name of Tina Renna, to disclose the sources for a few recent posts (e.g., here, here, and here) which Tina wrote revealing details about a number of Union County, NJ local employees were misusing their official positions to make personal use county property (portable electrical generators) during the recent "superstorm" Sandy.  That storm knocked out power in large areas of the State of New Jersey, in some cases for considerable periods of time, and the power outages included areas of Union County.

Ms. Renna, 51, has been posting revealing news items for several years now (since 2005) on her blog which is entitled, "The County Watchers" and which she has published regularly in conjunction with a  501(c)3 organization that she is involved with, called "Union County Watchdog Association." She relied on unnamed sources in her posts about the misuse of the county-owned generators.

Renna posted here about the court ruling in her favor.

Late last night (April 12th) the (NJ) Star-Ledger also published a story about the ruling, one which appears to be a case of first impression regarding the coverage of a "Newspaperman's privilege" for a non-traditional news source, such as is The County Watcher, by the protections of the New Jersey Shield Law.  The NJ Shield Law, or "Newspaperman's Privilege Law" N.J.S.A. 2A-84A-21, et seq. was initially passed by the New Jersey Legislature way back in 1977, long before blogs, new media and even any publicly available internet electronic media sources existed.

From the Star-Ledger report:
. . .
In a decision that could impact bloggers across New Jersey, a Superior Court judge ruled today that a self-declared citizen watchdog who writes stinging critiques of Union County government has the same legal protections as a professional journalist.

While questioning the quality and tone of the writing in Tina Renna’s blog posts, Judge Karen Cassidy concluded Renna "obtained material in the course of professional newsgathering activities" with the aim of disseminating it over the internet.

As such, Cassidy wrote in her opinion, Renna should be covered by the state’s shield law. Under that law, one of the most powerful of its kind in the country, journalistss generally cannot be forced to reveal their sources or other sensitive information to law enforcement or grand juries.
. . . .
Actually, in her analysis, Judge Cassidy noted three fundamental factors which she determined were necessary for making a proper determination regarding whether a potential claimant seeking protection under the provisions of the NJ Shield Law, is qualified thereby.

The judge rejected several arguments that had been advanced by the State urging that Renna and her organizational blogger participants were not journalists at all (citing as evidence the fact that they had not previously identified themselves as such), petty ruminations about spelling and grammatical errors contained in her posts, and a claim that she and her blog participants were identifiable as advocates for political change, rather than as journalists.

According to the judge, the person must meet those three requisite general criteria in order to be identified as a protected journalist under the protection of the shield law, including as follows:  The "first factor a claimant must demonstrate to establish privilege is a requisite connection to the news media." [decis at 16].  The second factor, according to the judge, is that the journalist maintain a "necessary purpose to gather and disseminate news" [decis at 18].  And, "[t]he third and final factor requires that the materials were obtained in the course of professional newsgathering activities." [decis at 19].

In her analysis of the facts of the case in the context of those factors, the judge concluded that Tina Renna and her stories met all three criteria, and held that she was thereby protected by the NJ Shield Law from the attempt on the part of the Union County Prosecutor to force her reveal her sources for the "generator" story.


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